Phil Drake Great Falls Tribune Oct. 14, 2019
HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock released a statement on Monday’s Columbus Day holiday encouraging Montanans to honor the contributions indigenous people have made to the state.
“Today, we celebrate and respect both the historical and current contributions indigenous people have made to the state of Montana,” Bullock stated. “We must also recognize and pay homage to the indigenous communities and culture that have been damaged or lost throughout history.”
“Today is an opportunity to learn from our past, tell an accurate story about the experiences and resiliency of indigenous people in Montana, and rededicate ourselves to education and justice,” he wrote.
Bullock’s comments rekindle a debate which often turned emotional in the 2019 legislative session in which lawmakers discussed renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in Montana.
House Bill 219 sponsored by Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, was defeated 5-3 by the state Senate Administration Committee after it passed the House 62-35 in February. An attempt in the 2017 legislative session to change Columbus Day failed as well. During that session, lawmakers considered renaming it Montana Heritage Day.
One Native American lawmaker said on the House floor’s 2019 discussion that Columbus Day celebrates a man who killed and tortured Native American people and compared it to having a holiday that would celebrate Nazi Germany.
Bullock, who noted his administration testified in support of Morigeau’s bill to change the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, said Monday was an opportunity to learn from the past and “rededicate ourselves to education and justice.”
Morigeau said after the bill died in the senate committee that he would continue efforts to get the proposal passed. He said Indigenous Peoples’ Day would have let Montanans honor shared successes and challenges “rather than a man who has a legacy of committing atrocities against innocent people.”
Columbus Day, observed the second Monday in October, has been a federal holiday since 1937 and is one of 10 federal holidays recognized nationwide by the U.S. government. It commemorates the arrival of the Christopher Columbus in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492.
At least eight states, including neighboring South Dakota, 10 universities and more than 130 cities in 34 states now observe Indigenous Peoples Day as an alternative to the federally recognized Columbus Day, USA Today reported. Critics say Columbus Day glorifies the mistreatment and colonization of Native Americans.
While it has not been recognized on a state level, there are some observances in Montana. Missoula and Bozeman adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in 2016 and the Helena City Commission followed in June and there was an observance Monday.
Harlem’s city council recently voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Morigeau said he had received calls Monday from people asking for guidance on bringing the subject forward once again.
“It’s good we are talking about the real story and people are starting to discuss some of the horrific things he did as a person,” he said of Columbus, adding adopting an Indigenous Peoples Day would let Montana come together and heal.
He said many people do not know about the cruelty of Columbus and described his treatment of indigenous people as “subhuman.”
“People tend to make up things from history that have been whitewashed over the years,” he said, noting Columbus was in the sex trade of indigenous women and committed mass murders against many, not only of native Americans.
“He killed people as if they meant nothing,” Morigeau said, adding later it was “borderline sacrilegious to honor somebody who has done so many horrible things.”
He described discussions during previous legislative sessions as “respectful.”
“People were genuinely open,” Morigeau said.
However, he said he did get some calls from out-of-state Columbus Day supporters in 2019 asking what he had against Italians? He said he had nothing against Italians, but noted Columbus killed indigenous people.
Bullock noted he joined the largest American Indian Caucus in the state’s legislative history to sign bills into law to benefit Tribal nations and American Indian communities.
This included five bills to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic, permanently displaying the flags of the eight Tribal nations on the State Capitol grounds, sponsored by Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning; extending the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and honoring Native Americans through the dedication of highway signs, sponsored by Rep. Jade Bahr, D-Billings, Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning and Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point.
Morigeau is running for state Auditor in 2020, but said he would support efforts to pass an Indigenous Peoples Day bill during the 2021 legislative session.
“I am not asking people to erase him,” he said. “I just want people to tell the truth about what he did. I think what he did is completely unacceptable and I think most people would agree.”
Reporter Phil Drake is our eye on the state capitol. For tips, suggestions or comment, he can be reached at 406-231-9021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.